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How to Survive Your First Semester of Nursing School: Things I Wish People Had Told Me

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What happens during your first semester of nursing?

Are you wondering what it is like to enter nursing school and to go through your first semester? look no further! Relieve your anxiety, stress, and questions by reading this article that has 20 survival tips and advice. Includes topics on dress, communication, testing, and studying.

How to Survive Your First Semester of Nursing School: Things I Wish People Had Told Me

I think we can all relate to that exciting moment when we first receive our acceptance letters into nursing school (congratulations by the way!), but we also know how terrifying it is, too. This is usually because you do not know what to expect; even though most colleges really do try to explain it, it is just not the same as experiencing it for oneself.

My First Week Observation of Nursing School:

1. Be prepared to probably buy a bag with wheels, you are going to have a lot of books that are NOT worth breaking your back over! Hobby Lobby has some great deals on scrapbook bags that work perfectly for this kind of scenario.

2. The people around you will be your family for the next 2 years of your life-learn to trust them, like them despite your differences, value their opinion, and to ask them questions because they usually have a lot of valuable information they are willing to share. You might be surprised, but your classmates are probably just as nervous as you are!

3. Do not be alarmed when you are put outside your comfort zone by being asked to answer questions regarding your personal beliefs and values, give an opinion, work with new unfamiliar people, or when discussing topics that were previously not discussed in any other basic prerequisite classes.

4. You will feel like you know nothing. Seriously. Just remind yourself that this okay and that it will get better, because it does. Soon you will know more than 50 abbreviations and medical terms! I promise that is a good thing.

5. You can never ask to many questions, at least that is what my instructor said (until she met me).

I imagine that your next anxiety is related to test taking, and by the way if you are wondering if nursing classes are as hard as people say they are, they are. Just saying. It takes a LOT of studying and perseverance to succeed, but it is possible. You have probably already heard that questions on nursing exams are different from all other previously taken classes, and that is correct. The next five tips outline some great ways that I have found to take and study for exams.

6. Always, always do the review, vocabulary list, all primary readings, and whatever else that the instructor assigns. This is not the kind of class that can be studied for an hour prior to taking the exam. If you want to put forth your best effort, use the tools given to you to succeed. If you do not understand how to utilize these materials, the instructor is often the best person to ask.

7. Find out your learning style, whether that be verbally, audibly, kinesthetically, or visually. There are many online quizzes to determine your best learning style if you do not already know it. Using you best learning style, or a combination of several, you maximize your chance of retaining material and applying it.

8. The questions are almost all application based, especially after the first couple weeks are over. This is not about memorizing random facts and information any longer, you must apply what you have learned to best take care of your patient. When studying, try rehearsing scenarios in your mind of how the information could be applied. The following is an example of a basic application based question: "What will you do if your patience has a hypoglycemic blood sugar?" First of all this question is not asking what a hypoglycemic blood sugar is (

9. Most questions are multiple choice and you must select the best answer, not the most logical or textbook relevant answer. Although this may seem straight forward, it is never black and white. It takes time to get used to, and it is always a good idea to ask your instructor about questions you do not understand after completing the test.

10. Realistically, you will most likely fail at least one exam or quiz. It really cannot be helped because it takes time to adapt to the environment, the format of how the questions are asked, and what is expected of you. Overall, sometimes the questions just do not "make sense". Keep in mind something my instructor told our class: "I would rather take a 'C' nurse that knows what they are doing, verses an 'A' nurse that cannot act responsibly and quickly to certain situations."

This leads me to my next topic, clinicals. Typically clinicals do not begin right away during your first semester of nursing, but rather become more and more frequent as you progress throughout nursing school. Your first clinical is often times the very first time you truly think "I am actually in nursing school, this real!" As exciting and thrilling as this moment may be, keep in mind that it is real. You are now interacting with patients, nurses, and even doctors and interdisciplinary staff. Especially if you have never worked in a hospital before, it can be rather intimidating. I remember my non-clinical instructor asking how I felt after having completed my first two clinical days. My melodramatic response consisted of that fact that I felt uneasy and that somehow I was sure I would "mess everything up" and endanger my patient. My instructor, in an effort to console me, tried to make the funny statement "Don't worry, we will catch you before you kill anyone." This made me even more nervous about clinicals because I felt that this statement was untrue. In response I stated, "No! No, you wouldn't though. I could kill someone and then go get an ice cream cone and no one would still be looking for me." First of all let me say this, I was being dramatic. Very dramatic. Please do not ask me, if I were to murder someone, why my first thought would be to eat ice cream. I guess I found my coping mechanism. Okay, so here is my next list of advice for clinicals:

11. It is worth taking the time learn how to properly write and verbally state medical terms and military time. You will forever use them in documentation and when interacting with staff.

12. You will probably embarrass yourself more than once for various reasons while on the floor. For me, the most common embarrassing mistakes I made were from mispronouncing medical terms, writing the time in standard time, walking into a different patient's room, forgetting my patient's room number, and when I walked out of my patient's room with red ice cream on my white scrubs. Do not let mistakes define you.

13. Adhere to your school's code of conduct and dress. Instructors do not hesitate to send you home if you are missing your name badge or lab coat. Make a checklist and lay things out the previous morning if you find that helps you remember what you need for clinical. Remember, your attitude not only reflects you character, but also yours school's reputation and how well you give care to your patient. It is not about you at this point.

(Note: During a normal class day you can usually wear normal clothing.)

14. For both men and women, wear your hair out of your face and in place so that it cannot easily be dragged through whatever (or whomever) you are working with. Minimal make up is acceptable, but should not be distracting. Usually tattoos must be covered, no nail polish or fake nails are worn, and one set of piercings may or may not be allowed (differs per school and facility) and only in ones ears.

15. Clinicals usually begin before 6 am and end around midafternoon, if you are not tired already you will be.

16. Bring a snack, you cannot provide adequate patient care if you are worried about your own stomach growling or are becoming "Hangry". Usually there is a breakroom or waiting room to eat in on each floor that is accessible to students.

17. This is not a time to talk about yourself. You are here for your patient. Learn to use effective communication-express empathy, reflect questions back to patient, talk as little about yourself as possible, be friendly no matter your patient's background, use tools adaptive to people with certain disabilities, get an interpreter if needed, make sure you explain what you are about to do before you do it, and most importantly be therapeutic.

18. Do you assessment quickly, thoroughly, and document on time. Nurses usually want the current vital signs to administer medications, and the doctors use information in the computer to provide care and make rounds as well.

19. Ask for help. During clinicals you usually are assigned a "primary nurse" to oversee you and who acts as a guide and sometimes even as your "guardian angel" from mistakes. She is there for you to safely learn and to ask questions. Utilize her as a tool but not as a safeguard. There are times when you may not be able to find your instructor or your primary, so you must act on your own knowledge and critical thinking. Remember, never do anything that may endanger your patient. It is always best to wait and ask for help, than to be sorry later.

Last, but not least, is this tip to keep in mind while actively surviving nursing school: You will have bad days. You can never predict what will happen during your shift, to your patient, or how you will react. Do not be too hard on yourself. It all comes with time, patients (no pun intended), and perseverance. The important thing is that you try again and eventually you will succeed.

I wish you the best in your nursing career and survival during your first semester. Hopefully you will live to tell the tale like I did.

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16 Comment(s)

I appreciate the advise.

Best Regards,



Specializes in EMS, LTC, Sub-acute Rehab. Has 6 years experience.

Good list and advice. I'd like to add a few things from my own experience.

20. I'd recommend taking a medical terminology course prior to starting. It cuts down on the memorization and will put you far ahead of the power curve in the long run.

21. People can get very cliquish and catty so stay out of the drama, backstabbing, and gossip. What comes around goes around.

22. Let you friend and family know that you no longer have a life but continue to touch base when you can.

23. Learn time management if don't know it already. Get a planner or calendar and run it out at least 2 weeks ahead. Don't forget to plan down time for exercise, TV, or whatever it takes to decompress.

24. Don't date fellow students. If things go bad your stuck with that person for the long haul.

25. Check your feelings at the door. This isn't about you, it's about the patient, following instructions, or learning the information required. 26. Don't ask stupid questions you can find the answers to. Critical thinking requires thought not talk.

27. Know what you don't know. Approach your instructors offline for help prior to getting in over your head. Most people who fall behind don't catch up.

I completely concur with the planner suggestion. I printed off a blank 12 month calendar and stapled it together. I wrote everything in it - clinicals, tests, projects, orientation dates, study groups, EVERYTHING! including my work schedule and when I asked for PTO! It was a godsend more than once when 8 months later, a hospital needed to know what date I had my original orientation at that hospital on...

For those of you being forced to use the MY CLINICAL EXCHANGE program, scan everything in separately, everything you gave the school, proof of vaccinations, BLS cards, etc. and save it to a specific folder on your computer and save it to the cloud. Most likely, you will have to re-submit all the information every term you do clinicals even if it is at the same hospital, but especially if it is at different hospitals. This is an annoying program for students, that we (or our schools) pay for, but is not user friendly to us.

Good luck!

Thank you so much for all the advice, I'm starting nursing school in a month! Excited and nervous!

Vana21, ADN, BSN, RN

Specializes in Cath Lab. Has 5 years experience.

I used an app called My Homework and at the start of the semester I would put all due dates in there so I would never miss something. Helped tremendously because I am one to lose a planner.

Also, if you like technology, get ebooks. You can highlight the same, and bookmark and it has a built in dictionary and you can make notes as well. Saved my back


missmollie, ADN, BSN, RN

Specializes in Neuroscience. Has 4 years experience.

Utilize your camera on your phone and take picture of anything that's an original copy required to be turned in. Do not delete until you graduate.


Specializes in ICU. Has 8 years experience.

1. There are people that do not need to study. I am one of them. Do not let this create a feeling of comfort if you are not a person that never needs to study. I've lost 2 peers because of this. Find your preferred study pattern, and stick to it.

2. Do not listen to people who say that you will not sleep, or are unable to spend much time with your families. I coach soccer, work full time as a RT, and hold a part time job while going to nursing school. Even if I had to study, I could find tons of family time by staying off the couch and not watching TV.

3. Don't complain of how little time you had, or how much you have going on in public. Leave this for your close friends.

4. Read ahead. I think this is why I do not need to study in a traditional sense. I read the passages before the lecture, listen to the lecture, and pass my classes.

5. While you might want to be an ICU, ER, NICU, Flight, Trauma nurse, keep it to yourself until the last semester. Imagine that a city might have a few dozen of these positions open up 2-3 times a year. You don't even know if the position will be available yet. Start worrying about this right before you finish school.

6. Sleep. You need to sleep at least 6-8 hours a night/day. No exceptions. Like I said, if I can fit in coaching, nursing school full time, 1 full time job as a RT, and part time RT work, and still get my sleep, so can you. I am horrible at macro time management. Believe me, if I can do it, so can you.

8. The more you have on your plate (time-wise), the less time you have to waste.

9. ATI is dumb. I can truthfully count more than 10 people that I personally know that never made above a level 1, yet passed the NCLEX in 75 questions. At the same time, if you do horrible on it, read the rationales to both the missed and correct questions. There are only so many ways to ask the same question. The key to passing the NCLEX is taking NCLEX style questions. Start early.

10. Smile. You might make someone's day, and in return, they might make yours!!

My advise to all new nursing students is two things:

1. HIPAA is real. Do not violate it. You could lose your position in the school and possibly the chance to work for that hospital, and if it's part of a network in a large city, you might be screwed (one of my former classmates, don't know what she's doing now, but it's not nursing)

2. During ANY test, think about it like it's NCLEX: read the question thoroughly, ask yourself what the question is really asking, think about patient safety first, then ABCs, then whatever else - if it's down to two questions, guess. NEVER, EVER change your answers unless you find the answer within the body of the test! I once missed a question on a Peds final, as did all of my classmates because we didn't use this - the question was; "A mother is visiting you for her child's 24 month checkup. She is worried about tooth decay and asks what a good snack for her child would be." The answers were: raisins, sugar free gum, hard candy, ice cream. The answer, of course, is the gum. It's the only snack that's sugar free and tooth friendly. (Yeah, we were all a little perplexed too)

A thick skin, keeping your mouth shut and avoiding nursing school drama are big ones I tell nurse students. Nursing schools are hives for stress and drama. Not saying hospitals or nursing as whole ate not but at least limit your interaction with that til you have license in hand! ;-)

bag003, BSN

Has 5 years experience.

When i first started nursing school, we had a meeting type thing with some of the senior upperclassmen nursing students (this was a BSN program at a liberal arts college).

They told us that they had 4.0's in highschool, and got C's in nursing school. They also told us to forget about a social life or playing a sport in college. And all they EVER do is study!!

I left this so called "meeting" in tears, calling my mom and trying to change my major. Thank god i didn't!

Whenever people ask me if nursing school is hard, i just tell them that yes, it is difficult. But you can still have a job, play a sport, have a social life AND still be in nursing school.

Fantastic advice, thank you all. Did anyone have children just before beginning program or during program? I always wonder when is the best time. A lot of people say there is never a right time but I think it may not be true for the nursing student.

All_dogs_eat_kale said:
Did anyone have children just before beginning program or during program?

I'm going into my final semester with 2 children (5 & 7). My best advice is to make sure you have backup babysitters, errand runners, and support. Schedule your study time at a time when you know they will be away or sleeping. Always make sure to include family time in your schedule every week.

I don't have kids, but at least half of my classmates have kids. All of them say that they wish they did not have kids! Nursing school takes way to much time away from family, so there is no way I would recommend starting one during school or before. It would be better to have a steady income first from your degree before having a baby. Hope this helps, good luck!

LnDrn3, BSN

Specializes in OB. Has 15 years experience.

It isn't easy, but it can be done!!! My son was 11 days old on the first day of nursing school!!! I had just had my second c/section and was exhausted because I also had 3 1/2 year old twins...thankfully, I have a husband that is super supportive, family that was more than willing to help, and classmates that understood that studying at my house was easier for me than having to meet elsewhere. I remember crying and questioning my decision once I saw my second semester schedule. The director of my program talked me "down from the ledge" and reminded me that the sacrifices I was making now were for my family and the kids were more resilient than I realized. I'm so happy I stuck with it and here we are 10 years later and everyone survived!! If you find yourself in a similar situation, don't give up. Accept any help that is offered to you whether it is to study or take a quick nap. Before you know it you will be finished and everyone will be the better because of it...GOOD LUCK!!!

If you are going to date or start dating someone you better make sure that person will honestly be willing to stick with and work with you. Schedules change and exams come almost every 2 ish weeks so that person has to genuinely understand hey you might not be able to hangout the Saturday before the test due to study guides and what not. They have to be understanding